Alien Bodies Day Two: Amalgamating the Past, Present & Future

The general broad theme is to explore the impact of technology on different cultures. Primarily my mode of working is assemblage (and collage). –Fatimah Tuggar

Fatimah Tuggar. "Working Woman," 1997.

Fatimah Tuggar. “Working Woman,” 1997.

On day two of Alien Bodies: Race, Space, and Sex in the African Diaspora I sat in on the Peculiar Landscapes: Art, Race and the Body panel in the morning. The first speaker, Elizabeth Carmel Hamilton (University of Florida), presented Analog Girls in a Digital World Fatimah Tuggar’s Afrofuturist Interventions in ‘Traditional’ African Art. Tuggar, a Nigerian-born Memphis-based visual artist uses strategies of deconstruction that challenge Western perceptions ways of looking. Her body of work conflates ideas about race, gender and class; disturbing Western notions of subjectivity.

Carmel Hamilton referenced Alondra Nelson’s and Kodwo Eshu’s definitions of Afrofuturism that upset notions of stasis in culture and cultural production. She used key words and phrases such as how this work amalgamates the past and the present; elucidates issues of race and technology; creates a community of others (forsaken geographies); and/or represents forms of cultural hybridity. Carmel Hamilton also discussed the do-it-yourself open source practices of artists in Africa and how this manifests in the art of Fatimah Tuggar.

Nettrice R. Gaskins. "Seed Station," 2010. All rights reserved by mabmacmoragh.

Nettrice R. Gaskins. “Seed Station,” 2010. All rights reserved by mabmacmoragh.

In the next panel, What We Mean When We Sat Butler: Alien Bodies and Speculative Fiction, presenters discussed notions of subjectivity and her inversion of stereotypical narratives about race, gender, class (and disability). My passion for Octavia Butler’s work began at an early age, so I enjoyed the discourse about some of her novels such as Fledgling, Bloodchild, and Kindred. Chair Abdul R. JanMohamed (Emory University) added some deep insights about the topic, including:

Afrofuturism is about seeing the future as being a vehicle for creating a different present. #alienbodies

Wangechi Mutu. "Cancer of the Uterus," 2005. Image courtesy of Jessica N. Bell.

Wangechi Mutu. “Cancer of the Uterus,” 2005. Image courtesy of Jessica N. Bell.

Black Maybe: Historicity and the Art of Blackness was the third and final panel of the conference and I got to meet scholar Michele Beverly (Georgia State) for the first time. Dr. Beverly explores the HeLa cell (Hela or hela) cell, one of the most widely used continuous cell lines for virology which was derived in 1951 from Henrietta Lacks. Lacks a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge —became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and so on. Dr. Beverly’s dissertation isn’t concerned with the ethical issues that have been hotly debated. She is interested in the “metaphysical possibilities” of

[V]isual works (that) push through Fanon’s “open dimension,” which I describe as a “portal,” and include the work of filmmakers Kathleen Collins Prettyman and Lee Daniels, several hip hop video works, the art and body of Jean-Michel Basquiat, contemporary music video/art works by Erykah Badu, and art/new media works of Nettrice Gaskins— works that make tangible an artistic subjectivity and challenge how spectators engage black bodies. –Michele Beverly

Dr. Beverly discussed how artist Wangechi Mutu’s collage of cell tissues places an Afrofuturist lens on pathology. The relationship between medicine/health and the black community has been problematic (and often unethical) to say the least (see the Tuskegee Experiments) but artists have challenged this history through expressions of transcendance and empowerment. Dr. Beverly also looks at how artists use the avatar as a way to reclaim history, time and space. These works include portals into new (alternate) worlds that cast black bodies as superheroes and god/goddess-like beings that bridge ancient, present and futuristic realities. John Jennings (SUNY Buffalo) presented his Black Kirby series (with artist and collaborator Stacey Robinson).

John Jennings and Stacy Robinson. "Black Kirby (series)," 2012.

John Jennings and Stacey Robinson. “Black Kirby (series),” 2012.

Black Kirby is a collaborative “entity” that is John “Pitch” Jennings and Stacey “Blackstar” Robinson.The introduction to this avatar is an exhibition of primarily works-on-paper that celebrates the incredible work of Jack Kirby and his contributions to the pop culture landscape. Black Kirby functions as a rhetorical tool by appropriating Kirby’s bold forms and energetic ideas combined with themes centered around Afrofuturism, social justice, representation, magical realism, and using the culture of Hip Hop as a methodology for creating visual communication. –John Jennings & Stacey Robinson

The Black underground comic book community is huge, especially in places like Atlanta, GA. Curator and scholar John Jennings focuses on the “analysis, explication, and disruption of African American stereotypes in popular visual media.” His research is concerned with the topics of representation and authenticity, visual culture, visual literacy, social justice, and design pedagogy. Jennings spoke about the affordances of technology on Black culture: freedom, equity and agency. He said that Black Americans have been largely socialized to think of themselves (ourselves) as disconnected and Afrofuturism creates an opportunity to build community. He referenced Nicolas Bourriaud’s Postproduction. Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World (2012).

I try to show that artists’ intuitive relationship with art history is now going beyond what we call “the art of appropriation,” which naturally infers an ideology of ownership, and moving toward a culture of the use of forms, a culture of constant activity of signs based on a collective ideal: sharing. The Museum like the City itself constitute a catalog of forms, postures, and images for artists – collective equipment that everyone is in a position to use, not in order to be subjected to their authority but as tools to probe the contemporary world.

John Jennings & Stacey Robinson. "Black Kirby," 2012.

John Jennings & Stacey Robinson. “Black Kirby,” 2012.

We can compare and contrast the Black Kirby series to Fatimah Tuggar’s Afrofuturist interventions in Africa (see top) to place a new theoretical lens on the creative and innovative practices of historically marginalized communities. Through research we can demonstrate how cultural-historical perspectives on art and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can be used to build new models for teaching and learning. This is, as Reynaldo Anderson of Harris-Stowe State University noted, Afrofuturism 2.0. Of course the connection of these themes and creative forms tie into my research of techno-vernacular creativity in underrepresented communities of practice. It also ties into contemporary art and D.I.Y. technology.

Left: William Cordova. "Badussy (or Machu Picchu after dark)," 2004. Photo by Globe Photo / Wiqan Ang; Right: Sanford Biggers. "The Bridge is Over (Biddybyebye," 2006.

Left: William Cordova. “Badussy (or Machu Picchu after dark),” 2004. Photo by Globe Photo / Wiqan Ang; Right: Sanford Biggers. “The Bridge is Over (Biddybyebye),” 2006.

Marcin Jakubowski. "Civilization Starter Kit," 2012. Courtesy of Isaiah Saxon.

Marcin Jakubowski. “Civilization Starter Kit,” 2012. Courtesy of Isaiah Saxon.

Two running themes in the work I saw: the scientific (technological) and the artifactual. Science-based artworks that explore genetics testing, pathologies and other contemporary issues that involve the black (alien) body vs. artworks based on artifactual culture are prevalent. Dr. Beverly’s work is great because it’s not necessarily digital or technological but it highlights the type of work I do and provides a different, female lens on these themes that is often excluded or ignored. I agree with Fatimah Tuggar that this is not an African or even and African American phenomenon – it’s global.

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